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'One foot in, one foot out': Potential transition to Plan B a complicated one for CCS

'One foot in, one foot out': Potential transition to Plan B a complicated one for CCS

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Cabarrus County Schools has met an unforeseen snag when it comes to getting children back into school buildings moving forward, according to  Crystal Hill, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

The level of learning that teachers are providing to students under Gov. Roy Cooper’s Plan C, which utilizes fully remote learning, has been good enough to where a transition to Plan B would actually require a kind of reset.

Hill and the Cabarrus County Board of Education discussed this dilemma at Tuesday’s meeting.

The snag

When speaking to parents and teachers over the first few weeks of school in Cabarrus County, there was a lot of positivity going around.

Teachers felt more confident about educating students online, while parents felt their children have been handling the transition well.

But parents, teachers and administrators agree — everyone wants students to be back at school learning sooner or later, and preferably sooner.

Because of how well the start of the year has gone under Plan C, and with COVID-19 numbers creeping up on the appropriate level to bring children back to school, the district and Board of Education have been discussing what they would need to do to transition to Plan B.

The problem is transitioning to Plan B during the middle of a school year will be a challenge, according to Hill.

“Once we’ve gotten into C, and C is going so well, our students have access to their teacher four days a week, so right now students are getting more synchronous, live, face-to-face interaction … than they ever would if we go to Plan B,” she said. “It’s going to be taking a step backwards in terms of the experience that students are going to be getting with their teachers.”

Katy Janssen is a ninth-grade teacher at Jay M. Robinson High School. She spoke specifically about that access a few weeks ago and how positive it has been for her relationship with her students.

She is able to check on not only her students’ studies, but also their social/emotional well-being every day during class.

Teachers across the district have enjoyed this, but if CCS transitions to Plan B during the school year, that likely will be lost.

CCS officials said they would love to keep it and are going to try, but to do that in the middle of the year will take a transitional period. The reason moving to Plan C has worked so far for CCS was that teachers had the entire summer to plan to teach remotely. They would not have that time in the middle of the year.

To maintain the level of connection to students present in Plan C, CCS would want to move to Plan B, introducing teaching via livestream.

The issue is that not all teachers know how to do that, so they would have to learn it. That takes time.

“Everybody realizes that Plan C is really good, and how do we go back (efficiently)?” Hill said. “We can’t ask teachers to be in two places at one time. That’s the problem.

“On March 13, we went into crisis teaching, right? It was as good as it got, but we worked really hard, and our teachers are doing just a bang-up job now because we learned from the past.

“They know how to do pre-COVID teaching (or what would be a Plan A), before March 13, face to face every day. But having them to have one foot in and one foot out is very difficult.”

Asking a lot of teachers

CCS has already asked a lot from its employees. For some, that meant figuring out in two weeks how to teach remotely in March. For others, it meant having to work hours to get paid while the state figured out how to pay everyone, and for even more, it required teachers to use some of their time off during the summer to prepare for the start of the year with a month of warning that they were coming back in Plan C.

Now, they could be asked to adjust again and figure out how to do something in two or three weeks while also handling a normal work load.

“Let’s say that we were leaning toward what Dr. Hill said, where if we were going to have kids in front of us and livestream it, well that’s something that the majority of our teachers have never done,” said Superintendent Chris Lowder. “Do they have a period of time that they can practice that, that they can work on that, knowing when you’re going to come back?”

When CCS students and staffers will return to classrooms is far from certain. The COVID-19 numbers are not yet where they need to be — according to CDC guidelines — for things to go back to normal.

However, CCS is still planning for that day so it won’t be caught off guard when it does decide to make the transition. 

“Everything’s going to start completely over,” Hill said. “We cannot ask our teachers to do livestreaming for at least two to three weeks because they’ve got to figure out how to get kids (into school), take their temperature, how to line up, how to stay 6 feet apart.

“I have kids; children do not understand 6-feet distance. They do this (Hill motioned by knocking two fists together) because they just want to be together.

“So teaching them how to do that and how to manage that is going to take a lot.”

Lowder echoed those sentiments, saying it will take at least three weeks to properly transition into Plan B.

This will not be simple.

“This is probably one of the hardest things that we are going to have to do from here on out,” Hill said. “It’s kind of like, something has to give, right? We’re either going to see kids face to face and let up a little bit on the instruction or we’re not going to see them face to face and have super-strong instruction.

“It’s very difficult to figure out that balance, so we are trying to strike that balance.”

Asking a lot of parents

Kimberly Reyes is the mother of five children, three of whom are in elementary school and kindergarten.

She is no longer just a mother who is working from home. In talking to her last week for a story, during a 20-minute interview she had to help two of her children connect to their classes, get another one fed and occupied, and keep her dog from going crazy in the house.

This is all while she is working a full-time job from home. Teachers are doing a lot to make sure students get an education, but parents are practically teacher aides right now while also contending with their normal workloads.

That is why several board members want to find a way to get students back into school, if only to provide a minor respite to parents like Reyes, who are overloaded with responsibilities at the moment.

“I feel for those parents that are battling their work and all the other things they have to do, and then to be a teacher,” said board member Holly Grimsley. “That’s not what they’re supposed to be doing, but they have to because no one else can work that 5- through 10-year-old through what they’re having to do in the morning except them.

“It really bothers me that as much as we say it’s hard on everybody, it’s very, very hard on working parents. I don’t know how some of them are actually doing it.”

A transition to Plan B may give relief to some of these parents, but it’s a transition that won’t be simple.

At the same time, parents like Reyes have said they might still choose to stay in Plan C and keep their children learning remotely out of consideration for their safety and the health of their families.

It’s about finding that balance.

Sorry, this needs a tangent

Kannapolis City Schools and Cabarrus County Schools are in two very different situations. KCS decided to come back under Plan B, but that decision was made easier simply because the district is responsible for closer to 6,000 people, while CCS has around 39,000.

It’s simply different.

KCS has made the first three weeks work so far. It remains in school while it has reported a total of three positive tests for COVID-19 in that time. There were two positive tests two weeks ago, and one last week as Superintendent Chip Buckwell announced on Facebook videos.

Plan B worked well for KCS because it planned to start the year that way, and it was more manageable due to the smaller numbers in the district.

Things aren’t that simple for CCS. Starting in Plan C was a logical step due to the numbers, but that choice and the slightly slowing COVID-19 numbers made it more difficult to transition into Plan B. It would almost be easier to transition into Plan A if it weren’t for the infection rate in the county.

The Cabarrus Health Alliance reported last week that 6.82% of those tested for COVID-19 in the county came back positive. That is up from 5.2% two weeks ago and above the CDC’s recommendation of going back to school at 5%.

Union County is a district much closer to CCS’s size, and it decided to return under Plan B to start the year. As a result, though, a few of its schools have had to shut down due to the virus.

CCS is doing all it can to monitor all of these happenings and weigh them in making decisions moving forward.

These are things that cannot be overlooked.

Hopeful target date?

CCS did not vote on anything regarding returning to school at Tuesday’s meeting. With the infection rate where it is for the county, the Board of Education wasn’t willing to do that.

There was mention of the end of the quarter being Oct. 22. That date was floated as a possibility to start the transition, but there was nothing decided.

It will take planning to get back to school, a lower infection rate in the community, a lower total number of cases per week in Cabarrus County, and a continued lowering of the hospitalization rate at local hospitals.

All of that will have to take place over a two- to four-week period. But the education board said it will do what it can to prepare for the chance of getting back to classrooms while making sure students and employees stay as safe as possible.

“We just got an email, just a little bit ago, that says, for some reason, I know we all talked about it and it probably means a whole lot more to us, these details, but I think we need to get that out there, what Plan B really will look like when we move back,” Grimsley said. “And I feel like we need to start moving toward that.

“We need to get kids back at some point in time, so I would like to see us moving back in that direction.”

There were also detailed preparations for re-entering school presented at Tuesday’s meeting, which you can view on the Cabarrus County Schools website.

“I’d like to make sure that we are staying in a thoughtful process from the standpoint of the learning environments,” said board member Cindy Fertenbaugh. “And don’t put a halt to what teachers need to accomplish with their curriculum delivery.”

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